When we reach for that king-sized candy bar or order the extra-cheesy bread at dinner, it’s not like we’re dooming ourselves to a future of failure. However, it’s important to recognize that all the seemingly insignificant dietary choices we make throughout the day can actually have an effect on how we feel. Not just physically (anyone else feel like they have to be rolled away from the dinner table after a particularly heavy meal?), but also in terms of our mental state.
“Think about how certain meals make you feel,” says Alex Caspero, a registered dietitian and nationally recognized nutritionist. “Without even knowing the science behind it, we all know how different we feel after eating a donut versus eating a salad.”
With Caspero’s and another registered dietitian’s expert input, we’ve outlined some of the worst food offenders that can potentially contribute to mental issues such as anxiety and “foggy brain,” and discovered some delicious alternatives.
Why It’s Important to Consume With Care
Before we dive into foods that may negatively affect our mental state, let’s first get into the science behind why food is so closely related with our mood.
“Food provides us with tons of nutrients, many of which are the precursors to our neurotransmitters, which work to communicate within our brain. How well these neurotransmitters communicate and what they communicate is affected by what we eat,” explains Lisa Hayim, a registered dietitian and founder of The Well Necessities and TWNtv.
Some foods can trigger too much of a specific neurotransmitter, which can have a negative impact on our mental state. For example, glutamate—found in monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is an ingredient in many preservative-ridden foods—is a neurotransmitter that can be toxic to the brain in large doses.
Contrarily, lack of certain foods means our bodies aren’t sending enough of a specific neurotransmitter to our brains. For example, a neurotransmitter that we want more of is serotonin.
“Anxiety is alleviated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep and appetite, but also happiness. The lower [we are] in serotonin, the more anxious or depressed we may feel,” says Hayim. “Surprisingly, about 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut. That means that having a healthy gut is a key element to producing serotonin that gets delivered to the brain.”
“There likely isn’t any blanket food that contributes to anxiety for all of us, as the gut is unique. Therefore, what works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another. Each of our guts is different, and what’s there is just as important as what’s not there.” —Alex Caspero, registered dietitian
“There likely isn’t any blanket food that contributes to anxiety for all of us, as the gut is unique. Therefore, what works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another. Each of our guts is different, and what’s there is just as important as what’s not there.”
—Alex Caspero, registered dietitian
There are more factors at play aside from neurotransmitters, of course. Ultimately, it boils down to how certain foods are processed in our bodies and how that process affects our brain. Let’s get into some specifics.
Foods to Avoid Eating in Excess
We want to begin this section by saying that, while there are certain foods that generally ought to be avoided in excess, everyone’s body is different.
“There likely isn’t any blanket food that contributes to anxiety for all of us, as the gut is unique. Therefore, what works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another. Each of our guts is different, and what’s there is just as important as what’s not there,” says Caspero.
That said, repeatedly loading up on unhealthy foods can make us feel sluggish, tired, foggy-brained, and potentially anxious—all of which can affect numerous aspects of our lives.
One of the more notorious culprits associated with a poor mental state is highly processed foods, which tend to be high in chemical preservatives, artificial flavors and colorings, trans fats, and MSG. The body struggles to process these foods adequately, and they tend to do very little in terms of our daily recommended vitamin, protein, and mineral intake. In other words, they’re largely empty foods.
“With my clients, I like to recommend filling up on lots of plant-based foods while also allowing for treat foods, guilt-free, [since] guilt surrounding food can also increase negative feelings.”
—Alex Caspero, registered dietitian
Both of our experts agreed that it’s best to avoid trans fats as much as you can. Trans fats are commonly found in fried foods, baked goods, partially hydrogenated foods like non-dairy shelf stable creamer, margarine, and salty snacks.
When consumed in large quantities, coffee and artificial sweeteners can also contribute to increased anxiety.
“Coffee has some amazing nutritional benefits, but it also increases our production of cortisol, which is our ‘flight or fight’ hormone. This can make us feel jittery and can exacerbate anxiety,” says Hayim. “Artificial sweeteners, like those found in ‘diet’ products or in the pink, blue, or yellow packet, may destroy an otherwise healthy gut and reduce levels of serotonin, that feel-good hormone.”
Foods that Help Foster a Healthier State of Mind
Now that we’ve talked about foods you should avoid in excess, let’s dive into the foods that tend to have a positive effect on the gut and, therefore, our physical and mental health.
First up is that delicious pink fish we all know and love: salmon.
“Salmon is rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which are omega-3 fatty acids that play an important role in normal brain function,” says Hayim. “Several studies have also suggested that omega-3 fatty acids play a role in alleviating depression symptoms.”
The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish, such as salmon, two or three times per week. When shopping, choose wild-caught, no-color-added salmon for the best nutritional effects.
Hayim also recommends adding lentils to your diet, which are a plant-based protein that’s rich in folate. Studies indicate that folate plays a role in the production of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Fermented Foods & Probiotics
Another type of food—or rather, a food genre—that’s good to regularly incorporate into your diet for an improved mental state is fermented food and probiotics.
“Eating fermented food can help to boost levels of good bacteria,” notes Caspero. “Sauerkraut with live cultures and non-heat-treated yogurt with live bacteria, kimchi, and kefir are all great options.”
Consider this news the perfect opportunity to patronize your local German or Korean establishment.
“Additionally,” she says, “a daily probiotic can help reduce anxiety levels. Studies suggest that combination probiotics of the lactobacillus and bifidobacterium family can ease digestion, suppress ‘bad’ bacteria, and support the immune system.”
It may be an ultra-buzzy ingredient at the moment, but that’s for good reason. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which has been shown to foster brain health and alleviate anxiety.
A 2014 study has also shown it can boost levels of DHA (that omega-3 fatty acid also found in salmon that we talked about above) in the brain. Because of its high antioxidant levels, it’s good at keeping you healthy in general.
Adaptogens can also help boost mental agility and reduce anxiety, says Caspero. An example of an adaptogen is an herb called rhodiola rosea.
“Rhodiola rosea root extract helps to stabilize stress levels so the body can easy ‘adapt’ to physical and environmental strains,” says Caspero. “A UCLA study conducted in 2008 found that those who took the herb for 10 weeks found a significant improvement in their anxiety levels. I like HUM’s Big Chill supplement, which contains 500mg of rhodiola extract.”
Other adaptogens include holy basil, maca, and chaga and reishi mushrooms.
Now’s the perfect time to incorporate chamomile tea or chamomile extract into your nightly routine. This calming plant contains high levels of antioxidants, and studies have shown that it effectively reduces anxiety.
Many people have chamomile tea in the evening because it also helps coax them to sleep.
“Shiitake mushrooms contain selenium and magnesium, two minerals that play a role in mood and are typically low in the Western diet,” says Hayim. “They also play a role in fighting inflammation.”
Hopefully all the above helped further convince you of what you already know: It’s important to choose foods that fuel your mind and body versus blindly consuming. This article isn’t meant to force you into a rigid diet, but rather to encourage you to be more aware of what you’re putting into your body.
“Enjoying vibrant, nutrient-rich food typically makes us feel more energized and therefore able to tackle the day in a different way. That’s not to say that you should avoid treats completely. Some research shows the pleasurable effects we get from eating a delicious food—say, an ice cream cone on a hot summer day—that actually improves mood, not decreases it,” notes Caspero. “With my clients, I like to recommend filling up on lots of plant-based foods while also allowing for treat foods, guilt-free, [since] guilt surrounding food can also increase negative feelings.”
Basically, what we’re saying is that, while nobody can maintain a perfect diet, and while treats are okay in moderation, we ought to strive toward better care of our bodies and brains. So here’s to many days ahead that are filled with vibrant, colorful, plant-based diets and fewer processed foods.